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After corrosive tumult, healing begins in Hernando County

Pastor Tommy Mason of Victorious Christian Life Ministries in Spring Hill protests at the Utilities Department on Wednesday.

RON THOMPSON | Times

Pastor Tommy Mason of Victorious Christian Life Ministries in Spring Hill protests at the Utilities Department on Wednesday.

BROOKSVILLE — After enduring a week of screaming headlines about county employees getting into increasingly outrageous scandals, Hernando County officials are moving forward with plans to steady the wobbling ship.

The remedies are coming not a moment too soon. Consider that in just the past few days:

• Human Resources director Barbara Dupre, a 10-year veteran, resigned after a scathing audit of her performance. Dupre agreed not to sue the county in exchange for a $24,900 lump sum payment.

• The county has confirmed that utility workers racially harassed co-workers, and disciplined three of them, with one supervisor quitting.

• The county has learned that its own lack of clear policies and procedures governing personnel matters likely contributed to the problems in the Utilities Department, and need a complete overhaul.

• A former Emergency Management Department secretary, Stephanie Anderson, was arrested, accused of collecting nearly $10,000 in overtime pay for work she didn't do.

• And the county has accepted a withering audit of Emergency Management director Tom Leto's special treatment of Anderson and other business decisions. His job hangs in the balance.

County Administrator David Hamilton, so new on the job that his personal belongings are just catching up to him after his move from Minnesota, has had his hands full putting out the fire of the day.

But with each new development, he has been establishing a path to begin to heal the wounds.

On Friday, the day after Dupre lost her job, he closed the Human Resources Department in the morning and met with the staff to talk about the traumatic events shaking their office.

He told them that he wants them to reach a consensus of who from their ranks they want to be their interim leader. Deputy County Administrator Larry Jennings will serve as their administrative contact person in the meanwhile.

Early this week, Hamilton said, he will draw together a committee to discuss what needs to be done in the short term with leadership there as well as what the county should look for long-term in a new Human Resources director.

But Hamilton doesn't expect that the county will get a replacement soon.

He will set up a committee to look at how to implement two sets of suggested changes to county policies. One set, looking at how to improve human resources procedures, comes from the Tampa legal firm hired to examine the racial harassment charges in utilities.

The other improvements come from a series of audits from the Clerk of the Circuit Court's office has conducted over a period of years.

"We cannot wait'' for a new director to begin that process, Hamilton said. "And it would be unfair to bring someone in'' knowing that so much work needs to be done to rebuild the department.

As he has worked to recruit people to serve on that committee, he said he has even gotten offers of help from retired human resources directors in the community.

One of the key recommendations that grew out of the report on racial harassment was the immediate need to provide training for all county employees concerning racial discrimination.

Managers, including Hamilton, went through that training this week. All other employees will take those classes in May.

But already the class has proved useful. Assistant Utilities director Jesse Goodwin took the class and on Thursday he had to use what he'd learned earlier in the week.

Early that morning, Michael Smith, the utilities worker who quit rather than accept a reprimand and 10-day suspension without pay for his racially harassing behavior, showed up at the Wiscon Road utilities office.

He came to turn in county uniforms and keys, but a witness reported that when he arrived, he was asking where he could find that "f------ n-----,'' the co-worker who had filed the initial complaint.

Goodwin was still investigating the case Friday but County Attorney Garth Coller said that he went to the scene Thursday and watched Goodwin go through the steps that he had learned in training to properly follow up on the complaint.

Hamilton is not alone in trying to use the fallout from the scandals to make improvements.

Clerk of the Circuit Court Karen Nicolai said last week that the overtime mess in Emergency Management has her in the beginning stages of making sure that all county employees know how payroll and overtime rules are supposed to work.

Even as the county starts to pick up the pieces from the turbulent week, more explosions are on the way. The week will start off with continuing investigation into Leto's business decisions to determine his future with Hernando County.

Barbara Behrendt can be reached at behrendt@sptimes.com or (352) 848-1434.

After corrosive tumult, healing begins in Hernando County 04/26/08 [Last modified: Friday, May 2, 2008 10:11pm]
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